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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 13:16 GMT 14:16 UK
Cat and mouse games in Afghanistan
British soldiers in Helmand (Pic: Will Craig, MOD Combat Camera Team)
There is little sign of normal life amid bombed-out houses
BBC Kabul correspondent Alastair Leithead comes face-to-face with the human cost of the guerrilla war in Afghanistan, embedded with British troops in Garmsir on Operation Bataka.

In the darkness I tried to find somewhere soft to lie down inside the open-air mud compound.

We were with British forces overnight on Operation Bataka in Garmsir, Helmand province, and the compound had for the last few months been in Taleban control.

I found a place and, still sweating in my body armour and with a big pack stuffed with water, rations and broadcast equipment, I settled down to catch some sleep before the men moved on.

The ground was unusually soft and comfortable but there was a strong, very unpleasant yet familiar smell.

It was the smell of a decomposing human body.

First contact

The Taleban had fought from here for months - even in the darkness there was evidence of where bombs and artillery shells had struck.

I moved to somewhere a little harder and somehow, despite the tension and anticipation, the heat and the insects, fell into a deep sleep that lasted until first light - and first contact.

It seems strange to plan and carry out operations that gain ground, only to pull back straightaway, but British forces say they do not have the troops to completely secure such vast areas - and never could have

Burying their dead is very important to the Taleban, and under fire from such high-tech opponents this would have been the perfect place for an improvised graveyard, as well as a bed for the night.

It was not to be my last encounter on this mission with the human cost of this guerrilla war.

The operation had begun at sunset on Thursday - a day later than planned - with more than 500 British troops and about 200 from the Afghan National Army.

Garmsir town centre is deserted, its shops looted and metal shutters flapping in the wind that also keeps the Afghan flag flying over what has been the frontline against the Taleban in this area for more than six months.

The small British bases at either end had been hammered day and night for months by the insurgents, using the network of irrigation channels and compounds to navigate the ground unseen until their attack.

The operation was designed to change all that - to push through into Taleban ground and to build a large bridge across the canal - to allow British troops to move into the no-man's land with relative ease in armoured vehicles.

Machine-gun fire

Artillery shells barraging Taleban positions marked the beginning of the operation and with darkness we crossed the canal with British forces and gradually moved through to the compound that we would stay in until daylight.

And it was the sound of heavy machine-gun fire that began the day, as the British infantry troops moved forward one compound at a time.

British soldier in Helmand (Pic: Will Craig, MOD Combat Camera Team)
The operation: build a bridge to let British troops enter no-man's land

Explosive charges created a route through as those further forward turned every corner expecting to see a Taleban fighter waiting for them.

Other units were responsible for different areas, all attempting to push the Taleban back on different fronts.

Apache attack helicopters hovered menacingly overhead, occasionally firing their distinctive and eerie high-powered canons at targets on the ground.

There was the threat of booby-traps so engineers worked carefully to move through the compounds.

We went through one doorway with the troops and saw the body of a Taleban fighter.

He had been shot a number of times - his and two other weapons were nearby. One frontline soldier said his compatriots had fled without their guns as the British troops moved forward.

Guerrilla warfare

The ground force then pulled back as the artillery shells, mortar bombs and helicopter fire continued to rain down on the area - considered by the UK commanders to be free of civilians.

And there was little sign of normal life amid the bombed-out houses and courtyards.

We headed back to the bridge - built in less than six hours by the Royal Engineers while I had been looking for somewhere to sleep.

It seems strange to plan and carry out such operations that gain ground, only to pull back straightaway, but British forces say they do not have the troops to completely secure such vast areas - and they never could have.

It's the tactic of guerrilla war - a game of cat and mouse between British and Taleban forces on the frontline in Helmand province and as I write, back in the main base, the shelling and mortaring continues.

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